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Deep Thoughts: Hiding In Plain Site – Bandai And Gunpla

In the summer of 1992, my parents were blessed to have been given use of a very, very nice cabin tucked away in the mountains of North Carolina. It was the kind of place that none of us would have been able to afford otherwise, so I was quite excited when they invited us over to share the week with them.

Our drive was about 6 hours long… more if you count the stops for for my son, who was not quite three years old at the time, and for my wife who was six months pregnant. Between bathroom stops for all of us, and an extended time at the McDonald’s play area, it was an all day trip.

As we drove from the relatively flat terrain of eastern North Carolina, heading west on Interstate 40, the landscape began to take on more “texture”. Flatlands became rolling hills, and those rolling hills became bigger hills, and finally, as we topped one crest in particular, we could see the mountains proper.

What Mountain?

My son, sitting in the back in his car seat, was a bit bored, staring out the side windows. I pointed to the mountains ahead. “Look – there’s the mountains!” We’d been talking about mountains for a while, as he was very curious about them. He’d seen them in his children’s books – simple triangle drawings capped with snow. And he’d seen some in TV shows- large, snow covered peaks.

He squirmed in his seat, trying to free himself from its confines, straining his neck to look forward and see these fabled mountains we’d spoke of for so long. Off in the distance, still a bit gray from haze, rose the first true mountains we’d seen that day. As it was summer, there was no snow – just the green color from being completely covered in pine trees.

Furrowing his brow, he sat back and folded his arms. I could see in the rear view mirror the look of disappointment and consternation on his face. He folded his arms, a sure sign of his frustration. Then he uttered one of those lines that only kids seem capable of delivering.

“Those aren’t mountains”, he declared. “Those are just tall trees!”

My wife and I still laugh about that to this day.

A New World

My first encounter with the Gundam Universe was quite accidental. I’d gotten burned out on building airplanes, and was feeling quite frustrated with the hobby. Eleven years of focusing primarily on single engined World War II fighters – almost 275 of them – had left me feeling a bit tired of the hobby. I briefly considered exiting the hobby entirely, but decided to see if perhaps just a change of pace was needed. 

I’d gotten in the habit of watching Youtube videos in the evenings that were focused on the hobby. Deciding to pick something different, I began scrolling through some search results. It was there that I stumbled on various videos about these models called “Gundams”.

I’d heard of them, of course, but my understanding was that they were simple snap-fit kid toys. It wasn’t that I was not taking them serious, or thought ill of them really… I just associated them with the Power Rangers my son had loved when he was young.

Yet as I began to explore the genre, I was shocked. 

The Numbers

I’ve never thought I was much of an artistic person. I like doing artistic things, and I suppose I have some ability in it. But no matter what endeavor I tackle in life, I love exploring the underlying data. I’m fascinated by the why, the what, the how, and especially the raw data. “How many” is a fascinating pursuit for me.

A few Google searches began to pull back the covers on these “newly discovered” Gundam. As I began to read financial reports about Bandai and Gundam kits (which I learned were more properly called “Gunpla” – Gundam Plastic Modeling), a fact jumped out at me that resonated as though standing next to clanging gong.

It turned out that since they had begun selling Gunpla kits in 1980, Bandai had average over 12.5 million units sold per year. For forty years.

My view of them as “kid toys” began to seem a bit uninformed.

Sharing The News

As I dug further into the numbers… the business side of Gunpla, I started to tell fellow modelers about it.

More than a few were surprised. “DId you hear – Jon is building Gundam?” “What? Jon? Really?” It surprised me a bit. And more than a few questions came my way. I explained they were more than just toys for kids – though certainly they are that too. I shared web links and Youtube channels and social media groups with my friends. They began to see the work many Gunpla artists produced, much of which was on par with any luminary from the traditional Western modeling experience.

The local hobby shop I frequented began carrying Bandai Gunpla kits – and they sold. Elsewhere, it seemed a wave was beginning to rise, bringing the genre to a more mass audience in places that had not seen them before. Certainly not because of what I did – I was simply caught up in the vortex of the wave – a wave I was happy to paddle along with.

Quite a few things happened- IPMS shows started recognizing the growing popularity of Gunpla. More and more “old school” modelers in North America and Europe began to give the genre a try. I was quite happy to see the growth. Though only involved in a small, peripheral way, it was nevertheless fun to be involved.

Revealing The Giant

I think one of the biggest aspects of Bandai and Gundam that will surprises people is how big they are in the overall toy industry. According to a report from Brand Finance, Toys 25 – 2017, Bandai is the second highest ranked toy brand in the world, with only Lego being larger. Bandai’s brand value as of 2017 was US$1 billion. It’s as big in terms of brand value as numbers 4, 5 and 6 combined – Barbie, Nerf, and Mattel. And the Gundam brand itself is ranked number 7, ahead of Hot Wheels, Hasbro, and My Pretty Pony.

Bandai consists of more than just Gunpla models, of course. One of its other franchises, Dragon Ball Z, has actually caught up to Gundam. They produce toys, models, books, video games, and multiple anime series and movies. Annual sales for their fiscal year ending March 2019 were reported at US$6.7 billion, up 8% over the previous year, with an operating profit of US$770 million.

To say the company behind Gunpla is huge would be a bit of an understatement. 

That’s A Lot Of Nubs To Trim

Of course, Gunpla is a segment of a much larger company… just one of the many income streams in the companies portfolio. But it’s certainly no small source of revenue.

According to the Bandai Namco 2019 Fact Book, from 1980 through March 2019, 499.87 million Gunpla kits have been sold – and what further staggered me was this did not include their “Super Deformed” line, which amounts to another 165.6 million units since 1987.

So while the average is around 12.5 million units per year of just Gunpla kits, you know how averages work. In the first 6 months after their initial release in 1980, they sold 500,000 units. And while I’ve had some difficulty finding precise unit sales in FY2018, suffice to say it exceeds 12.5 million units. For 2017, Gundam sales hit US$6.27 billion. That’s billion with a “b”.

While digging into the numbers for other plastic model makers is beyond the scope of this article, I bet that number towers over all the others – even if they were combined.

Where The Gunpla Meets The Road

I’ve had trouble nailing down exact numbers, but the bulk of Gunpla sales – the actual plastic models – happen in Japan. Add Asia as a whole in, and that is the vast majority of the market. North America and Europe represent a smaller percentage – it appears to be in the low teens. (Again, I apologize for not having firmer numbers on this, but I’ve found some contradictory sources in this measure.) Yet the point remains that “the West” is a relatively fresh and fertile place for growth.

Earlier this year, Bandai purchased Bluefin, which had the sole rights to distribute Gunpla in the US (among other Bandai brands.) This indicates that Bandai is seeing the North American market, particularly the US, as one growing large enough to warrant direct attention.

If you live in the US, you’ll be seeing more Gunpla. Lots more. And that’s a good thing. 

Changes Are Afoot

For many years, I’d worked on the assumption that the hobby of plastic modeling would eventually die, primarily because the bulk of people who build tanks and planes and automobiles aren’t getting any younger. And I’d been to enough shows to realize the replacement rate of new hobbyists was insufficient to sustain things long term.

I know some might accuse me of ignoring the rest of the world. Yet in my defense I’d say “I did not know what I did not know.” For most western hobbyists, scale modeling is planes, tanks, cars, ships, and other historical and military related subjects. Domestically produced scifi, while loyally followed, is a small part of the puzzle. So when I viewed the landscape, all I knew of was what I saw – and it did not include the giant I did not know existed.

I now realize – quite happily – that this hobby is going nowhere but up. What is built may be evolving… but the practice of putting plastic parts together will only grow. And that is not only good for the Bandai market, but for the market as a whole. Essentially, it does what traditional modeling organizations have tried to do for decades – bring new modelers into the hobby.

Yet…

Beware The Bumps

There’s no doubt that Gunpla is going to continue to grow in popularity in the North American/European market. And with it will come additional products, Bandai or not. Franchises such as Bandai’s Star Wars kits, Hasegawa and Wave’s Maschinen Krieger, and others such as models from manufacturer Kotobukiya, will ride along with this “Japanese invasion”… much like the “British invasion” in music of the early 60s. 

But with change will come challenges. In just the brief time I’ve been involved, I’ve seen signs of good things. Yet I’ve also seen some bad signs.

Both groups,, which for the sake of this article I’ll generalize as “traditional” and “Gundam”, are very passionate about their craft. Each wants to see the hobby grow. And the two are taking very positive though early steps to work together. I applaud this, and anytime I have the ability to be a positive influence, I try to do so.

Yet I would be disingenuous not to provide some critical observations. And while there could be a few, I think they can all be lumped under one thought:

It’s OK if one group does not feel as enthusiastic as yours does. And I mean that both ways.

Working Together

I’m certainly not talking about the fringes that seem to think the “new guy” or “old guy” as the case may be should be actively ignored, resisted, or ridiculed. Boorish behaviour is not called for in any endeavour, and thankfully is at a minimum.

Yet I fear that what may emerge – and I base this on real world observation –  is two “bubbles” of scale modeling communities, which float alongside one another, occasionally commingling, happy to be close together, yet in reality always separate and distinct. While I think initially it is simply a natural outcome of “first contact”, my hope is to see those bubbles burst. Because something bigger than traditional and Gundam, old and new, is at stake.

While Bandai brings a huge breath of fresh air to the table, it is still small in comparison to what really matters. A group that dwarfs even Bandai’s unit sales numbers.

Modelers.

What Unites Us

Regardless of your age or genre, the similarities that we share in this hobby outweigh the differences. It’s a love of creativity, a passion for building, a drive for research, and often a desire to compete that provides us a common ground to stand on. Those are all things that can be agreed on.

But I think the next phase needs to move into accepting that it’s OK if someone doesn’t have the same enthusiasm as you do for your preferred plastic habit – and still see them as a fellow modeler. Don’t see it as a threat to what you do, and don’t be a threat to what someone else does. There’s so much room for everyone to find something they like.

I guess it’s an old fashioned notion, really. I recall as a kid having friends who only built cars, while others built tanks. A few built all sorts of things. Yet all of us gathered together, with whatever we worked on, and had fun showing off what we’d done. No one worried about modeling friends doing something different.

Being a fellow modeler was good enough.

I Can’t See The Top

As we drove on that day, the mountains grew larger. The ones shrouded in mist turned out to be the small ones. Further behind them were even taller mountains, and then yet even higher ones beyond those. In no time at all, we were driving among them, winding our way through valleys, as the massive formations towered over us.

My son’s initial assessment that they were just tall trees vanished. He strained his neck to look upward. Eyes wide, mouth agape, he almost shouted each new discovery. “Look at that one! Look at the big rock!” What had seemed an abstract, far off thing was now front and center.

Eventually we made eye contact in the rear view mirror. He shrugged in the way only little kids can, held his hands up, and said “They’re so big… I can’t even see the top!”

I’m quite excited that the giant that is Bandai is really starting to grow here in “the West”. I say this not because I want the other to go away, but rather because I can testify to the many, many hours of fun the genre has brought to me. It does not have to be “either/or”. The infusion of new people, new ideas, new kits, and so much more mean that this hobby we all love will progress and grow. And that benefits everyone, from the largest companies to the most casual modeler.

And having a newborn grandson, I look forward to the fact that there will be so much variety we can choose from to work on together. I’d like to think that perhaps one day he might even work on models with his grandchild. 

How I’d love to know what they’ll be building together. 🙂

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9 comments

  1. Good points — Another non-traditional subject worth considering would be Games Workshop (and some of their smaller competitors like Privateer Press) — it was only a couple years ago that they were the best performing stock on the LSE. If someone did a deep dive into their annual reports like you did with Bandai, I wouldn’t be surprised if you got a similar result with GW’s model sales towering over most of the traditional model kit manufacturers.

    I want to see these bubbles come together more (both for the long term health of the hobby, but also because it is more interesting to see some diversity of model types on the tables), but it feels like it isn’t easy. It feels like there is something that needs to be overcome here, and both sides need to do a little more than the bare minimum — it takes a little more outreach than just saying “they are welcome to join, if they want to, I guess,” when it comes to bringing underrepresented groups into anything.

    1. Thanks Brain!

      I’d thought about bringing GW into the mix, but because the focus was essentially on reaction to SPrue Brothers recent announcement, I thought I’d focus on that. But certainly GW is quickly growing outside of the gaming confines into simply being a provider of scale models for so many.

      You nailed it on the bare minimum part. It must really be outward focused, not just what can be done for you or your own constituency.

      Thanks again for the thoughtful points!

    2. The only problem I’ve ever had with GW is their price point is pretty steep and they force tournament players to by the “newest” stuff to play. You of course are not required to play the game but it is interesting that they artificially keep the money train rolling that way. I can’t fault them for finding a way to remain profitable and I do think a great deal of their models are very cool.

      1. Part of the issue with gaming models is that unlike traditional models or gunpla, you aren’t just paying for the plastic and the design, you are also paying for the people who write and playtest the rules. Those guys need to be paid somehow, and with print media being more of a last century thing, companies are moving away from selling rulebooks and towards giving the rules away for free digitally. So, some of that extra overhead from the game design and rules department ends up being baked into the cost of the model.

        To illustrate this, compare the MSRP of a generic metal miniature from Reaper which is not associated with any game system to an equivalent model from Privateer Press for one of their games. The Privateer Press model will usually be significantly more expensive because they have more overhead, having to pay game designers, proofreaders and playtesters.

        In a way, people like Jon who build the models but don’t play the game are supporting the people who play the game because a portion of the money Jon spends on a GW model goes to pay for some guy in Nottingham to write a bunch of rules for a game Jon doesn’t play.

        Anyways, GW/Citadel models are not cheap, but on a per model basis, I don’t think they compare that poorly to competitors like Privateer Press or Fantasy Flight Games, especially once you take quality into account. Of course, part of the issue is that to play their mainline games (40K and Age of Sigmar), you need a lot of models, and that adds up quickly.

        Personally, I’m not crazy about a lot of GW’s aesthetic, aside from Necromunda and maybe the blimpdwarves or whatever they are called. Their tanks are too boxy, their Space Marines are too round, and so on. Though I do have a Drukhari Kill Team starter set staring at me from my shelf…

  2. I’m actually finding my interest heading in the opposite direction. I started as a table top gaming modeler, have recently moved to gunpla and have started to think about making a more traditional western model or two (cars, plans etc …) I’m actually pretty excited to see the ship you might be trying out.

  3. An issue I’ve also noticed is that the rules for IPMS shows haven’t kept pace with this new influx of sci-fi and fantasy modelers. The judging rules often require as much as 25% of the scoring to be for references. I dunno about you, but often the extent of my referencing is me surfing the net, seeing a cool kit, going ‘that’s cool!’ and buying it.

    There’s a lot of cross-polination that is of huge benefit to all genres, but realistically, it’s only those of us that dwell inter-genre that are going to drive any change or progress. Rivet Counters will always be counting rivets, and Nub Polishers will always be polishing nubs.

    1. Interesting! I wonder if that is an Australian thing? (The references) In the contests I’ve judged here, the only references required (note the emphasis! 🙂 ) were on the out of the box entries. Some folks did leave documentation to verify certain details, etc. for sure.

      But you make a great point – the rules and judging must be ever evolving.

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